WASHINGTON -- Hell bent on driving its approval rating into single digits, Congress adjourned after passing an omnibus spending bill larded with at least 8,993 earmarks costing at least $7.4 billion -- the precise number and amount will be unclear until implications of some obscure provisions are deciphered. The gusher of earmarks was a triumph of bipartisanship, which often is a synonym for kleptocracy.
This was the first year since 1994 that Democrats controlled both houses. Consider Congress' agreeably meager record:
It raised the hourly minimum wage from $5.15 to $5.85 -- less than the $7 entry wage at McDonald's -- thereby increasing the wages of less than 0.5 percent of the work force. Rebuffing George W. Bush, who advocates halting farm subsidies to those with adjusted gross incomes of more than $200,000, the Senate also rejected -- more bipartisanship -- a cap at $750,000. This, in spite of the fact that farm income has soared to record levels, partly because Congress shares the president's loopy enthusiasm for ethanol and wants more corn and other agricultural matter turned into fuel.
Although Congress trembles for the future of the planet, it was unwilling to eliminate the 54-cent-a-gallon tariff on Brazilian ethanol. But our polymath Congress continued designing automobiles to make them less safe (smaller) and more expensive. It did this by mandating new fuel efficiency -- a 35 mpg fleet average by 2020 -- lest the automotive industry design cars people want. And Congress mandated a 12-year phaseout of incandescent light bulbs.
Bruce Raynor, president of the union Unite Here, expressed organized labor's compassionate liberalism when he urged sparing workers the burden of democracy: "There's no reason to subject workers to an election." The House agreed, voting for "card check" organizing that strips workers of their right to a secret ballot when deciding for or against unionization of their workplace. Unions, increasingly unable to argue that they add more value than they subtract from workers' lives, crave the "card check" system. Under it, once a majority of workers, pressured one at a time by labor organizers, sign a card, the union is automatically certified as the bargaining agent for all the workers. Senate Republicans blocked this, but the Senate Democrats voted to cripple the Department of Labor agency that requires union bosses to explain how they spend their members' money.
To improve Americans' health, Congress hopes that by 2017, 22 million more people will begin smoking, enough to pay the increased cigarette taxes that purportedly would finance an expansion of SCHIP (State Children's Health Insurance Program). The program, supposedly for low-income children, would have been expanded to cover many children -- and adults -- from households with incomes far above the nation's median income. The president vetoed the expansion.
Having vowed to end the war in Iraq, House liberals ended the year in a minuet of moral evasion. Representatives passed a bill containing money for the war in Afghanistan, but not for the one in Iraq. The Senate added money for Iraq. House Democrats then voted 141-78 against final passage, but House Republicans and moderate Democrats passed it and liberals headed home to brag about having voted against funding the war.
In January, with much preening, House Democrats embraced "paygo," the pay-as-you-go rule that any tax cut must be "paid for" by compensatory tax increases or revenue cuts. In December, Democrats abandoned it because of the alternative minimum tax.
The AMT was enacted in 1969 as an indignation gesture aimed at fewer than 200 rich people who managed, legally, to owe no taxes. But the enactors neglected to index the AMT against inflation, so this year it would have been a $50 billion bite out of 23 million taxpayers. The House voted to repeal it and pay for repeal with a $50 billion tax increase. Senate Republicans argued that no Congress ever intended the AMT to collect, or ever will allow it to collect, such large sums from such a large number of Americans. Therefore, paygo would siphon $50 billion to compensate for a fictitious $50 billion. The Senate voted 88-5 to not collect the AMT this year, the House acquiesced and paygo evaporated.
Rep. John Campbell, a California Republican, notes that this year the House took many more votes (1,186) than ever but only 146 bills became laws, and most of those named buildings or other things, or extended existing laws. Congress, and especially the Democratic majority, should be congratulated for this because a decrease in the quantity of legislation generally means an increase in the quality of life.